Here we are at the book that started it all: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone! (Or Sorcerer’s Stone for any Americans reading this.)
It took a while to decide just how I was going to present this. Eventually I decided to just go with bullet points of the things that struck me reading the books this time round. Hopefully this will be okay to get things across without having to take forever once I get to the longer books.
Chapter 1 – The Boy Who Lived
- It’s a curious way to start. This series is going to be full of magic and excitement and where does the first chapter begin? With a ordinary, boring family who make conscious choices in order to be ordinary and boring, right down to the tie Vernon Dursley wears to work.
- But then, this does create excellent contrast as the first few pages proceed. The Dursleys live in their own secure little world, and though – unlike most of the people around them – they are aware that a different, strange and supernatural world exists, they manage to block it out. Yet on the day that the story begins, it starts leaking through the shields bit by bit: a cat reading a map, people in cloaks, a little man with a peculiar voice who hugs Vernon and uses words he doesn’t understand.
- I like how Vernon’s character is brought across in the first few pages: his struggles to explain what he’s seeing in a ‘normal’ way, the fact that he gets into a good mood from shouting at people, and that he “didn’t approve of imagination“.
- Then eventually, we move away from the Dursleys and are introduced to Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid: these characters give a taste of what we’re really in for, in the world we’ll be diving into. Dumbledore and Hagrid’s appearances are especially unusual, and while McGonagall doesn’t look that odd, she can still turn into a cat.
- I find myself wanting to know how Dumbledore’s watch with the little planets works.
- The rest of the first chapter lays down the initial facts and creates a great hook, telling us who the villain is and giving us an idea of some of the conflict. I find a particular intrigue in the fact that McGonagall correctly predicts Harry’s going to be seriously famous, and yet he’s not even growing up in the world that will be celebrating him. When he does enter that world, dealing with everything new will be hard enough – but he’ll have to deal with being a celebrity as well!
Chapter 2 – The Vanishing Glass
- Harry’s attitude to the rotten life he lives with the Dursleys comes through a lot in this chapter: he knows it’s horrible and he’s not really holding out hope for a better future like Cinderella, but he’s certainly surviving, and he still has a sense of humour. Apparently he doesn’t just think that Dudley looks like “a pig in a wig” – he actually says it, though it doesn’t mention who to and how loudly. Also, Harry actually likes his scar, the unconventional thing that makes him stand out more than anything else – a stark contrast to what the Dursleys like.
- Vernon and Petunia’s overindulgence of Dudley seems rather exaggerated now, almost to Roald Dahl standards – thirty-seven birthday presents and a promise of two more just to surpass last year’s haul? How much money do the Dursleys have? Sadly I’m sure there are plenty of real parents who do treat their children this way, and Rowling certainly isn’t subtle about what she thinks of that approach to parenting.
- There’s no way that boa constrictor could have winked at Harry, since snakes don’t have eyelids. Also its size is a little exaggerated: boa constrictors get up to around four metres long, so not quite big enough to “have wrapped its body twice around Uncle Vernon’s car and crushed it into a dustbin“.
- The Dursleys’ abuse of Harry – particularly being locked away with no food – was certainly harsh reading when I first read these books, but as an adult with more knowledge of the world, it’s a great deal worse.
Chapter 3 – The Letters From No One
- I wish we saw more Hogwarts letters so we’d know if they’re all so specific as to mention what room the subject dwells in.
- Dudley’s second bedroom, and all the broken stuff in it, really gets across that Dudley is not only spoiled but wasteful. He’s never been taught otherwise; indeed, his parents positively encourage his behaviour. And the ultimate horror: he doesn’t like reading!
- How are the letters actually working? Presumably there’s a charm which indicates if the letter has been read or not, but is somebody (Dumbledore?) consciously determining how many letters will arrive each day and how they will try to enter the house, or is there an automated magical system doing this? These are the kind of things I find myself thinking about having already read the books and gotten an understanding of the rules of this universe.
- Uncle Vernon definitely shows his contempt for imagination in this chapter, given how he thinks that simply sealing up the letterbox will solve the problem. “These people’s minds work in strange ways, Petunia” – an ironic statement indeed.
- Vernon seems to have a flash of Divination ability as he foresees the success of a certain Muggle singer, muttering to himself, “Shake ’em off….shake ’em off.”
- Rowling’s descriptive prose feels particularly concise in this book, presumably as it’s aimed for a younger audience. I have to admit that her descriptions of people can seem a bit stilted, but then, this is her first published novel. And I still love the humour in her prose, like when describing the hut on the rock – “One thing was certain: there was no television in there” – and “(Harry) hoped the roof wasn’t going to fall in, although he might be warmer if it did.”
Chapter 4 – The Keeper of the Keys
- Having Hagrid be the one who re-introduces Harry to the magical world is really quite brilliant. His very appearance is wild and unnatural, given how large he is – everything the Dursleys hate. But at the same time, he’s clearly not a person that the Dursleys can intimidate or resist in any way. Meanwhile, he subverts expectations hilariously: this terrifying-looking giant smashes down the front door in the middle of a storm, and the first thing he says is, “Couldn’t make us a cup o’ tea, could yeh?” Then, even as Harry describes Hagrid’s face as “fierce, wild, shadowy“, he finds Hagrid actually smiling at him. He shows Harry real kindness, while literally bringing warmth to the scene as he lights a fire and cooks some sausages.
- It isn’t until Deathly Hallows that we learn properly Petunia’s hatred of Lily was ultimately motivated by jealousy – but the way Petunia rants about Lily here, you can certainly see it between the lines with the benefit of hindsight. It’s also interesting how Hagrid mentions that Voldemort “didn’t dare try takin’ the school, not jus’ then, anyway“, considering what the ultimate climax of the series involves.
- Was James Potter really Head Boy at Hogwarts, considering that we learn later on he wasn’t a Prefect? Did his behaviour improve so much around sixth year that Dumbledore decided to give him the badge? Can you be Head Boy/Girl at Hogwarts without necessarily being a Prefect?
- Harry’s spirit may not have been broken by the Dursleys, but it has been still thoroughly stamped on, given his reluctance to believe that he can be a wizard – or gifted in any way – at all.